I often get asked by new, and often not so new beekeepers, “How do you find the queen?”. This subject seems in many circumstances to be the cornerstone of beekeeping. While there is definitely a knack to how you find the queen it’s something which does get easier with experience, but often isn’t really necessary.
There are periods in the year and the life of a hive when it’s nice to know that the queen is present and doing her job. I suggest that you search through the hive to find the queen, but while you’re doing that, look for signs that the queen is there.
If you see capped worker brood, larvae or eggs you can be sure there was a queen present very recently. Eggs are very small so they’re easier to see if you get the sunshine behind you, so that it shines into the bottom of the cell. If you see single fresh eggs in cells, you can be sure the queen has been laying eggs within the last 24 hours.
This should be enough to tell that the hive is not queenless, whether or not you find the queen during the inspection, at least you know she is there and she’s laying eggs. If you see more than one egg in a cell, sometimes many eggs in one cell or eggs laid on top of pollen, you can be sure the queen is not there. Once the colony realizes it is queenless some of the workers begin to lay unfertilized eggs as a ‘last-ditch’ attempt to pass their genes on through the production of drones.
Rather than asking, “How to find the queen?”, it might be worth asking, “Why do you want to find the queen?”. It’s worth pointing out that making sure you know what the queen looks like, and how she behaves will help significantly. This video of the queen laying eggs might help.
The best technique how you find the queen is NOT, as I did for years, to start looking on one side of the brood box and work you way across the box to the other side!
Before you open the hive, puff a little smoke at the entrance and wait for a minute or two. Lift the lid and puff a little more smoke underneath, wait another minute or two. Remove the roof, supers, queen-excluder and put to one side. puff a little more smoke across the top of the frames. Remove the frame furthest away from the bee activity, on one side of the box.
Hold the first frame away from you and survey the whole frame. Look for any groups of worker bees, especially if they’re arranged in a ring facing inwards. The queen is larger than a worker, longer and slimmer than a drone. She moves in a more purposeful way than workers and so is easier to see if you ‘stand back’ and look at the whole frame rather than peering closely at the bees.
Once you’ve satisfied yourself she isn’t on that frame, place the frame by the side of the brood box on the stand. Next, gently move the frames apart to make a space in the middle of the ‘nest’. If necessary, lever the frames apart to release them, but only part the frames in the middle.
Choose a frame from either side of the space, lift it out and carefully inspect both sides as before. If you find her you can mark her if you wish, which makes her much easier to find next time, or gently replace the frame and continue with your inspection. Do not put this frame outside the hive box, you do not want to run the risk of dropping the queen on the ground.
If you do not see her on that frame, replace it in the wide space in the middle of the box, not touching the frames on either side. Take the next frame, inspect it, and replace it next to the other inspected frame, not touching the uninspected frame. Work you way from the middle outwards, then do the same on the other side. If necessary reverse the procedure and inspect all the frames a second time. If you’re still not clear on how you find the queen, get a fellow beekeeper who, ‘has the knack’ of how you find the queen, to show you their method.
By using this type of strategy, you split the nest into smaller sections and isolate the queen on a few frames, instead of letting her run anywhere she chooses. The queen is most likely to be at the center of the nest. By opening up the nest and removing the most central frame you’re much more likely to find her. If you do, as I used to do, and inspect from one side to the other, you tend to alert her and ‘chase’ her across the hive and end up never seeing her.
Once you’ve completed the inspection, push the frames together again in the same configuration as when you opened the hive, replace the first frame and close up. With a little practice you’ll soon be an expert on how you find the queen.